The United States is often described as an experiment in self-government. But what is this thing? Most people understand “self-government” to mean democracy. According to this understanding, a people are self-governed if they regularly vote to select the individuals who are to occupy political offices. This method of deciding who holds political power has clear advantages over conferring political power according to military prowess, bloodlines, or other criteria remote from the input of the ordinary men and women who are to be governed.

“All societies of man must be governed in some way or other. The less they may have of stringent state government, the more they must have of individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they must rely on private moral restraint. Man, in a word, must necessarily be controlled; either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man.” John Quincy Adams

Understood in this way, to endorse self-government is hardly to take a courageous or controversial stand. No good case can be made that fitness to govern is best determined by bloodline or by skill at military conquest. Clearly, whatever power the state exercises ought to be exercised by people chosen in fair elections by those who are subject to the state’s dictates. Almost no one in modern Western society disagrees that people ought to be governed in this way.

But such government, regardless of its merits, is not really self-government. It is government by the elected. No amount of romantic praise of democracy can change the fact that even the best popularly elected government routinely obliges Smith—against his will—to do the bidding of Jones. And whether Jones be an influential special-interest group or a popular majority, when Smith is threatened with coercion to do Jones’s bidding, neither Smith nor Jones is self-governing. Smith is governed by Jones, and Jones is governing not only himself but Smith as well.

True Self-Government
Self-government in a truer, more literal sense is both desirable and possible.

True self-government is just that: self–government. Each individual governs himself. Each person is free to chart his own life’s course, choosing which risks to brave and which to avoid. Each person is responsible only for himself, for his family, and for those whom he—of his own volition—chooses to care for. Each person has a claim to the fruits only of his own labor and sacrifices, and no claim to the fruits of another’s labor and sacrifices. Each person has a legal right to do as he wills so long as he respects the equal rights of others and honors all his commitments.

Of course, living in this way—as a free man or woman—requires discipline. To be foolish and imprudent is to fail at self-government. Typically, people who don’t govern themselves personally pay the price of not doing so. One advantage of a free society is that it focuses the costs of irresponsible behavior on those who behave irresponsibly, and it focuses the benefits of responsible behavior on those who behave responsibly. The result is that irresponsible behavior is kept to a minimum.

But how to distinguish responsible from irresponsible behavior? If we let each individual determine how to make this distinction, won’t the result be chaos?

Some behaviors are plainly and always destructive of social coöperation. Murder, theft, rape, slaveholding, arson—these and other behaviors whereby some people coerce others are unquestionably out of bounds; the law should prohibit them. These behaviors should be prohibited precisely because they interfere with their victims’ rights to govern themselves.

The precise means of deciding which behaviors the law should prohibit, as well as how to enforce these prohibitions, is debatable. I don’t wish to weigh in here on the dispute between anarcho-capitalists and advocates of limited government. Reasonable people can and do disagree about just how far we can go in ridding ourselves of the state, although no reasonable person believes that society can exist without laws protecting each of us against coercive threats against our persons and property.

But the state today does far more than enforce laws against murder, theft, and other obviously predatory acts. Almost all that today’s state does offends the idea of self-government. Government in America today doesn’t hesitate to coerce those who are politically weak to do the bidding of those who are politically strong. Nor does government today hesitate to treat its subjects as foolhardy imbeciles in need of strict guidance from the state. In both ways, today’s government denies people their right of self-government. The state governs; its subjects obey. Each of us is ruled to an increasingly large degree not by ourselves, but by others.Consider: regulations mandating that we wear seat belts; minimum-wage legislation; government restrictions on drug use; state blue laws; truancy statutes; the regulation of advertising; tariffs and other import restrictions; government controls on which foreigners we may associate with on North American soil; building codes; occupational licensing; the command that every worker contribute to the Social Insurance/Security and “Medical” schemes; taxation that consumes around 40 percent of our income—the list of offenses against self-government is endless.

Many people who reflect on all that government does today will insist that it simply must do these things, for otherwise, too many people will fall into traps that they are either too stupid or too weak to avoid.

I don’t doubt that each of us will make some choices that we later regret. Nor do I doubt that some of us will prove to be especially inept at making wise choices. And surely from time to time these unwise choices will lead to terrible consequences.

But what is self-government if not the ability to govern yourself as you choose—with you taking responsibility for yourself and leaving others free to take responsibility for themselves? Those who insist that government must take responsibility for the safety and welfare of people should stop proclaiming their allegiance to liberty and self-government. They should instead forthrightly proclaim an allegiance to the principle of government by the élite few of the irresponsible many.

I would resolutely object to this principle, but at least its advocates would be forthright. They would no longer be masquerading as friends of the noble ideals that motivated Jefferson and Madison. They would, instead, honestly reveal themselves as patrons of the notion that ordinary men and women are incapable of self-government and, hence, unworthy of liberty. The result would be a more enlightening debate. Liberty and self-government stand clearly opposed to the exercise of intrusive state authority. People advocating intrusive state authority would then be explicitly aware that they reject liberty. They would be forced to concede that they do not believe in the principle of self-government.